‘Reading Rainbow’ not just about books

Andy Matthews

Ask people in today’s workforce about “Reading Rainbow” and they’re likely to have either been viewers themselves or raised children who reaped its educative benefits.

For over a quarter century, the publicly funded television show worked to instill a love of reading within countless children, but in 2009, the show was abruptly canceled by PBS. While big-government supporters howl every time a cut to the government subsidies that support NPR and PBS are so much as whispered about, it is only when the government gets out of the way that the free market can flourish.

And this is happening right now as the private sector breathes new life into “Reading Rainbow.”

In a matter of days, the one-time publicly funded children’s television show has demonstrated what the free market can do when big government steps aside to let it function. In late May, former “Reading Rainbow” host LeVar Burton turned to the crowdfunding website Kickstarter in an effort to raise enough private, voluntarily gifted money to revamp the popular show.

While the cancelation came after PBS was unable to come up with “several hundred thousand dollars” to renew the show’s broadcasting rights, in less than 24 hours, the private sector contributed over $1 million to revive “Reading Rainbow” in a new, online format. By the end of the month-long fundraising campaign, over $5.4 million had been contributed, with an additional $1 million given by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane.

The fundraising effort — which is little more than a website set up for donations, offering incentives for larger monetary gifts — serves to educate a far broader populace than just those who belong to the show’s target audience. In a matter of hours, “Reading Rainbow” debunked the common liberal view that good endeavors need the helping hand of government to succeed, and emerged as a strong testament to the power of free markets.

The show also offers a lesson in innovation and product improvement. The new, online format will be better formatted for today’s youths by reaching them where they are: on computers, on iPads, and perhaps even on smartphones.

And the new “Reading Rainbow” aims to combat America’s illiteracy problem, not just foster lovers of the written word.

If “Reading Rainbow” had never lost its taxpayer funding, would it be making these advances? Would the product ever have improved, or would it have stayed stuck in the 1980s and fallen victim to irrelevancy?

It is competition that forces companies to constantly provide better services and products. And that can only happen in a free-market economy.

While some bloggers have criticized Burton for turning the canceled show into a for-profit business, many others are recognizing what is really happening here. In the words of the New York Post’s editorial board, “Reading Rainbow” is returning “thanks to technological innovation and the free market.”

The show’s new format has given the public something it wants enough to pay for. Nearly 106,000 individuals contributed to the campaign. They saw enough value in the product to back it voluntarily through exchanges on the market rather than forcibly through taxation.

“Reading Rainbow,” like all products and services that are valuable to consumers, doesn’t need public funding. It’s making it just fine on its own, and the uncertainty of continued funding will force it to continually innovate and improve.

LeVar Burton saw an opportunity to provide a valuable service to American households and public school classrooms and took it when the public model failed. “Reading Rainbow” and its supporters saw a need and took the initiative to fill it without turning to our cash-strapped country to pay for it.

Many of us know first-hand that “Reading Rainbow” has a lot to teach children, but let’s hope more adults take note of its important lessons as well.

Andy Matthews is President of the Nevada Policy Research Institute. A version of this commentary first appeared in Nevada Business.